Past & Future in Yumbel
Winemaker Mauricio González (38) could pass for yet another rural resident from Yumbel, a small community north of the Biobío River. He knows some of the local stories, he gets along with his neighbors, he rides his horse often, and he even speaks a bit like a campesino.
The stories he knows include the one about San Sebastian, a saint they revere in Yumbel and one of the most famous religious celebrations in southern Chile. The figure arrived in Yumbel in the mid-17th century, supposedly just temporarily, because it was intended for the city of Chillán. But since they could not cross the front lines of the Arauco War, it was left in Yumbel. And every time they tried to move it, something happened.
“It liked Yumbel and never left,” González says. And the same might be said of him someday too. He’s only been in the area for a few years, but he fell in love with the place, and it looks like no one can move him from here.
Until 2015, this agronomist and enologist with a degree from the Catholic University of Chile had spent a decade working in the modern wine industry, primarily as a viticulturist. He worked at Garcés Silva in Leyda, at Altos Las Hormigas in Mendoza, and at Luis Felipe Edwards in Colchagua. And during that time, the person who influenced him most was the soil consultant Pedro Parra, who first mentioned that it would be a good idea to look toward the forgotten vineyards in the south and its ancient, dry-farmed vines. González wasn’t particularly familiar with that world. His family is from the Andean side of Talca, so the only memory he had of country wines were those they made with pergola-grown grapes in that zone. But today those century-old vines in the south, those head-trained bush vines planted on the rolling hills of the Coastal Range, those old wineries with old wooden troughs made of local raulí and that have never seen a lick of modernity, are part and parcel of his current world. They are the wines that he drinks, that he celebrates, and that he makes.
And the project he and his wife Daniela Tapia have, Vitivinícola Estación Yumbel, is one of the mainstays of Chile’s new campesino wine scene, a group of wineries that draw on the old way of vinifying, and now bottle a type of wine that until recently knew no other destination than jugs, demijohns, and bulk production. They are producers primarily in the Itata and Biobío Valleys in the south, where the Spaniards planted país and moscatel vines centuries ago before the emergence of French viticulture in Maipo. González’s neighbors include Manuel Moraga (Cacique Maravilla), in the same community, and Roberto Henríquez, on the other side of the Biobío.
Daniela Tapia and Mauricio González in Yumbel.
And because these wines are made naturally—with grapes fermented with their own native yeasts, with very little or no sulfur at all—this scene tends to converge with that of natural wine, which is trending worldwide and driving an entire market.
This partially explains why importers from England, USA; and Brazil have found their way to Yumbel and come knocking on his door over the past couple of years and that he is selling his wines at a good price averaging US$70 for a 12-bottle case. First-world critics and journalists have also been turning up, although none as curious as the former tennis star Fernando González, who quietly arrived in Yumbel with a friend who is a Miami-based importer.
The interest in Estación Yumbel is due to its wines made with país grapes—those juicy, fast-drinking wines—but also for their moscatel, and ultimately, for the newest member of their brief catalog, a malbec grafted onto país rootstock that yielded its first commercial harvest in 2018, and it’s practically all gone. They drank the previous vintage among themselves and their guests. “We drink a lot of wine,” González says on a hot summer afternoon, with a glass of cold país in hand.
They still use a small winery that produces about 10,000 bottles per season (they hope to reach 15,000 this year) and where González and his wife make almost all of it themselves. Mauricio and his wife, Daniela Tapia (34), have been together for 10 years and have a 4-year-old son. Daniela is an engineer who, after a couple of jobs, went independent and created a café in the Barrio Italia sector of Santiago. She sold it shortly thereafter to go to Yumbel join González in take this great family project.
“We’ve been in the black for a year now,” she says, and she should know because she manages it all. “Sometimes we can’t even believe it. Importers come and then keep coming,” González adds, happy to be beyond those difficult early years when they lived off their savings and had problems with the partner they originally started the project with in 2015. Today his only partner is Daniela. “She’s the boss, and I’m the grunt,” he says seriously.
Everybody makes wine
González’s introduction to Yumbel came in 2012, through Tinto de Rulo, a project that he developed with 2 agronomist friends while he was still working as a viticulturist in Argentina and Chile. They are wines from old, dry-farmed vineyards in Maule and Biobío.
While looking for grapes for that project, he discovered the soils in Yumbel, whose volcanic character lends the país and other varieties a special identity. That’s also when he met a local grape producer, Eduardo Valenzuela—Don Lalo—one of those cordial country men with a face that’s slightly leathered from so much sun—and who is now sort of an adopted godfather for Estación Yumbel. They do business with him, but he also helps them with many things free of charge. And they aren’t little things. For example, he lends them a truck as if it were nothing.
When González first began to learn about this world, he loved it immediately. “I felt like it was for me. I’m a bit rustic.” He also liked how deeply rooted the culture of wine is in Yumbel. “People here drink wine,” he says, pointing in all directions. “The man in across the street is a teacher who makes wine for his own use. The neighbor has some vines and makes wine too—and so does the guy on the corner, a town councilman. Everyone here makes wine.”
González is enthusiastic about country wines, but not religiously. He honors tradition, but he modifies it. Rural folks ferment their wines for 10 days because that’s the recipe that’s been passed down, and they follow it to the letter. Not González. He ferments his until all the sugar is consumed. “If it takes a month, it takes a month,” he says. “People here are always asking me when I’m going to take the wine out of the trough.”
“We propagate the yeast to get the fermentation started; we harvest early, and when the grapes arrive, I don’t keep them more than 4 days without fermenting; and we cover the troughs. These are ways we keep tweaking tradition.”
He says he and another producer have an ongoing—but friendly—argument about the use of troughs. His neighbor leaves his open, because that’s the way it has traditionally been done. “I think it’s a bad practice. When you make bread, you cover it to keep the flies off of it. And for us, wine is a food, and I don’t want any flies or worms in it.”
Other times he speaks out against enology. He complains that young professionals come to the zone to advise traditional producers, telling them to use yeasts or sulfur. Old-vine país grapes are not used to sulfur, and the wines fall apart, he laments. “All of Chile’s good países are made with very little sulfur or none at all.”
He frequently punctuates his speech with the phrase, “it’s just wine!” as if to recall that there’s no reason to complicate it so much and that in the countryside they just drink the wine and that’s that. Maybe it’s to remind himself that he can have long conversations on soil types, solar exposures, the effects of the local raulí wood on tannins, and technical matters. It’s as if he has forces of tension battling within. The past vs the present, the countryside vs modernity. There’s the Mauricio González who blends in with Yumbel’s campesinos, but there’s also the one who awakes from a romantic dream, aware that revisiting the past is not the same as living in it. And because this project has just begun, the battle will go on for a while yet. As well as the wine—lots of wine.